Refrigerator: The Story of Cool in the Kitchen by Helen Peavitt
By Helen Peavitt. London: Reaction Books, 2017. Pp. 208. Hardcover £18.
The history of refrigeration touches upon many different disciplines, subdisciplines, and subjects. It obviously includes the history of technology, but it also involves social history, business history, the history of food, and many aspects of anthropology, public health, and sociology, too. It is unreasonable to expect any book to give all of these subjects equal or even significant attention, but the history of technology ought to be far closer to the center of the story than it is in this particular history.
While Peavitt mentions the various technologies that made both refrigerators and refrigeration possible, she explains none of them. Indeed, for a book that is nominally about electric household refrigerators she includes an awful lot of material on very different kinds of refrigeration technology. Her argument is that consumers tend to overlook the importance of refrigeration in our history and in our lives, so including other technologies like ice and ice machines makes sense for that reason. However, failing to distinguish the technological differences between refrigeration and refrigerators only confuses the narrative.
Peavitt's primary interest is in the wide-ranging effects of refrigeration, and that is the great strength of the book. She quotes, for example, British homemakers from throughout the post-World War II era explaining how refrigerators changed their lives. She cites statistics on how refrigerators led to a drop in the number of trips these women had to take to the market and even how cookbooks changed to reflect the appearance of this appliance in the British kitchen. With respect to the United States, Peavitt shows the ways in which new refrigerators were at the center of changes in room design that have come to define what constitutes the modern kitchen.
With regard to the literature available on the history of refrigeration, Peavitt's great contribution is all the information she offers about the history of this appliance in Great Britain. Study refrigeration and refrigerators for any length of time and you'll see that their impact transcends boundaries, but little attention has been paid to the British refrigeration industry outside a few large companies that mostly made industrial equipment. Peavitt covers the introduction of the refrigerator into British homes in the post-World War II era very well, including the difficulties that refrigerator makers faced when dealing with the underdeveloped electrical grid there.
The thoroughness to her approach to the material on Great Britain is understandable, as Peavitt is a curator at London's world famous Science Museum. Many of the absolutely stunning refrigerator and refrigeration pictures that she includes in the book come from that museum's collections. The material on refrigeration in the United States lacks the same novelty. While Peavitt recognizes that inventors around the world contributed [End Page 1109] to the development of refrigeration, the refrigeration situation in no country besides the United States and Great Britain gets any significant attention in the narrative.
Peavitt makes a convincing case that refrigerators quickly became symbols in both of these countries. Her interest in kitchen design helps make that point. So does a continual series of pop culture references that will make all but the grumpiest scholars among us smile in recognition. Her section on the relationship between refrigerators and health, inspired by the marketing of the early refrigerator era, is an important contribution to a very recent literature about the precise meaning of the term "purity" at this exact time in history.
This book is intended for a broad audience. Museum visitors will likely find it much more interesting than historians of technology, as that story is subsumed by many of the other aspects of this history in the narrative. While the book explains the impact of the technology of refrigeration far better than it does the technology itself, it is nonetheless an important contribution to the general history of refrigeration both because of its British focus and because of a few of the novel and entertaining refrigerator anecdotes that Peavitt has uncovered.
Jonathan Rees is professor of history at Colorado State University–Pueblo.